The Roots of St. Patrick’s Day in Tudor Ireland

& Local Phoenix Celebrations at the ICC

Dr. Sharonah Fredrick, Assistant Director, ACMRS

On March 17th, the Irish Cultural Center of Phoenix, with whom ACMRS collaborates closely on many successful educational projects, will host an expansive and varied St. Patrick’s Day festival. It includes music, dance, lessons in Irish Gaelic, and guided visits of the ICC’s superb lending library. One week earlier, ACMRS will participate in the annual ICC St. Patrick’s Faire, outdoors on March 12th. Interested onlookers are invited to come to ACMRS’s table, browse our Bagwyn Books catalogue of historical fiction, and learn about exciting upcoming events, many of them with the collaboration of the ICC. ACMRS takes this opportunity to extend happy and proud St. Pat’s greetings to all Irish-Americans and Irish-interested readers of its monthly newsletter. Considering the prominent place Celtic studies occupies in European literature, and the outstanding place of Irish men and women in Caribbean, Latin American and North American history, from the early 16th century onward, that is a fine legacy to celebrate this March.

What are the historical roots of this day in March, known as St. Patrick’s? The general background is known: how the holiday began in the 19th century in New York, how it vindicated the legacy of Irish immigrants, discriminated against in Northern cities in ways that made Bobby Kennedy compare the suffering of Black and Celtic-Americans, and how, post-potato famine, St. Patrick’s Day, and the newly constructed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC, helped to restore shattered Irish pride and rebuild a promising future. All of that would very much seem to predate either ACMRS’ medieval or Early Modern mandate. But earlier chronological origins of the holiday lie elsewhere.

The renewed interest among 19th century Irish intellectuals in the figure of Patrick and in his accompanying legends, some apocryphal and some rooted in truth, forms part of the rediscovery of the Tudor literary period in Ireland. Patrick’s phenomenon provides us with an explanation of why Ireland’s timeline diverges from the rest of Europe, and why its marginalized history links it more with the New World than with the Old. When Europe enters its supposed “Renaissance” Ireland entered one of its darkest periods: the period of Tudor and Stuart dominance in the 16th and 17th centuries. Its culture was controlled in the same manner that the Native cultures of the Americas were subjected to imperial dominance. Ireland’s response, like that of African peoples in the West Indies, and the Maya of Central America was to create a subtle form of resistance that no cannons could crush. It was a new literary tradition: the Bardic Gaelic school of music and poetry. Reaching as far back as 1200, the Gaelic tradition of Bardic poetry was at its height during the reign of Elizabeth Tudor in England. Eventually, following Elizabeth’s unexpected negotiations with Ireland’s pirate queen Grace O’ Malley, that school of epic and verse even drew some grudging respect from the Tudor monarch, despite her earlier attempts to Anglicize Ireland. Until the mid-1650s, the Bardic school recreated episodes from Ireland’s past in Gaelic poetry. Many of those episodes dealt with Patrick, arguably Europe’s most successful missionary, (since Ireland’s Christianization was accomplished with no bloodshed). By the mid-17th century, the Stuart kings had crushed the Gaelic literary Renaissance. But as the Irish moved increasingly to the New World, their poems went with them. In the 19th century, many of the 16th and 17th century ballads were revalued and studied, and the figure of St. Patrick re-emerged as a contemporary focus for Irish intellectuals.